06 April, 2006

The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down

In a comment on this post by Colorado Luis back at the end of December, Andrew of the Wash Park Prophet wrote one sentence that really made me start to think about how we on the left really view the immigration issue. So much so that I saved it for when I could set aside enough time to seriously finish thinking about it, or at least get a good head start.
The United States is well known for its success in integrating immigrants into its society (call it a melting pot or a salad bowl as you will), and birthright citizenship has been an important part of that success. [Emphasis mine.]
Is this a case of painting everything with the same broad rose-colored brush? Or is it simply a case of a different point of view, and one which I do not necessarily possess?

You see, I have a lot of face-to-face contact with a high number of immigrants, from all areas of the world, due to my area of employment. Nigerians and Eritreans, Germans and Mexicans, Thai and Chinese: I see them all, and on a regular basis. So regular that, for at least half the time, I know their usual requests for items kept behind the counter. And for those that do not have a language barrier, I learn a bit about their families, their homelands, and (occasionally) their languages.

And that last part is the telling one for me, as pretty much every non-English-native speaker is either making the effort to be fluent in English, or have already done so. Some have progressed to the point where their native accents show very rarely. And the exception that proves the rule tends to be Spanish-language speakers.

Rarely do I have to delve into my pathetic knowledge of German in order to assist a customer. And never have I been required to dredge up the few words of Arabic or Twi or Farsi or Thai that I've picked up over time. So why is it that my Spanish has progressed by leaps and bounds in comparison to what I had learned in high school?

Every other immigrant group, regardless of where they originated from, has allowed themselves to be culturally assimilated into the standard American manner of speech. That includes my own ancestors, soon after they passed through the gates of Ellis Island. They put aside their dependence on their native tongues; Croatian, German, Dutch, Italian, and Gaelic (the latter of which was my great-great-grandmother Aida NicLeod, who came from the Isle of Man in April, 1866); and set themselves to the oft-times arduous task of learning the language of their new nation. They wanted to fit in, to prosper, to be Americans.

This is usually called the "Melting Pot Effect" by American sociologists. Yet it is not quite an accurate description of what once happened with immigrant populations. I prefer to call it the Merry-Go-Round Effect, as there was a definite cyclical series of events involved. First, an individual would come into this country from Insert Other Country Here. Next would come a period of learning about how things worked in their new country, an initial assimilation for such concepts as culture and language skills, and so forth. Both during and after this process would come relative prosperity in this country, if not outright economic success, and fully becoming a citizen of this country. This, in turn, would inspire more immigrants, often from the same town or village as the original immigrant, to come and achieve the same successes for themselves. This trend is repeated pretty much ad infinitum until the present day and, for many areas of the world, continues to work well.

So why do so many immigrants from anyplace south of San Diego decline to ride? Personally, I place some of the blame on the true Liberal Left, if that's not a repetitive descriptor. The base philosophical viewpoint, particularly among the Politically Correct crowd, is that all cultures are valuable to the nation, and should be encouraged. For some reason, this is extended to the language barrier: those that don't want to learn [insert language here] in order to "assist the immigrant population in their quest to create a new life while maintaining the cultures and traditions of their original homelands", as one of my former college professors (who we actually called The Flaming PC Liberal Airhead behind her back) once rattled off.

And, in truth, most Spanish speakers don't need to learn English, as there's been more than enough accommodation for that language in everyday life. Government-issued forms almost always have a Spanish-language counterpart. Business proudly declare in their advertisements "Se habla Espanol!" to drag in those other-lingual shoppers, even when they don't spell it right. The fastest-growing broadcast media segments in the country are those with Spanish-language programming, whether in radio or television. And in the majority of major American cities, there are significant chunks of the area where you can not hear a single word in English spoken on the streets.

Now, I will admit that this is not a particularly unique concept, as there are at least two other immigrant groups that have done the same thing. However, the immigrant areas of San Francisco and New York known as Chinatown and the areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco known as Little Tokyo are just that: specific geographic areas where those specific national cultures, including languages, are maintained and celebrated. Additionally, and particularly with those of Chinese descent, those areas tend to be very insular and mostly self-sufficient except for in areas such as city services: water and power, public safety, etc. Outside of those specific areas, immigrants from those cultures have, for the vast majority, undergone the process of assimilation into American culture and society. And further, some of these areas were founded in times where there was a direct distrust, if not outright hatred, of that specific ethnic group. Which would, in all actuality, bring them in line with a third group of somewhat insular immigrants that were not well accepted, but now considered the quintessential ideal, by some American citizens: the Irish. (After all, how many non-Irish are out there that celebrate St. Patrick's Day, or, if you prefer the original spelling of St. Padraig compared to non-Mexicans that celebrate Cinco de Mayo?)

So why do immigrants from Latin and South America seem to bypass part of the American Merry-Go-Round and not assimilate? As I wrote earlier in this post, some might not feel that they need to, due to the accomodiations our society has allowed for them. Yet there is a second factor, ease of access, that seems to take a part in this. For almost every other immigrant group, there is a definite barrier involved, not too unlike the great big wall that some portions of American society wish to place along the southern border, called an ocean. An oceanic barrier is much more than just a wall, however. It becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle for those wanting to come to this country, and so they must do so via legal routes. (There are extra-legal methods to cross the oceanic barriers of course, such as the Cuban rafts washing up on South Florida beaches. Few barriers are perfect.) This extra effort required for legal immigration has, perhaps, caused a greater emphasis on the need to assimilate. After all, they choose to become strangers in a strange land, and becoming a part of that land would be a form of a safety blanket.

Yet with the relative ease of illegally crossing the border by land, perhaps that need is not felt. After all, some areas of Mexico have been almost completely depopulated due to immigration, whether legal or illegal, into the United States. Of course, this begs a question in my mind: Why would they not choose to become citizens of this country, particularly seeing as how there is very little left for them back in their home towns? Why risk being on the recieving end of a deportation proceeding if there is nothing left for you to go back to?

This point is probably the most perplexing for me, particularly in light of the "Jumping The Line" point I made at the end of my previous post on the subject. Foreign nationals that are already in this country, legally or illegally, have a significant advantage in applying for citizenship compared to those still residing in their home countries. So why is it that there seems to be no significant impetus within the Hispanic community towards gaining citizenship here in the United States?

I know there's someone out there that can provide some insight into this thought process. After all, that is the magic of a blog. The question is, will they be able to find this. And if they do, will they set aside the seemingly automatic distrust of any gringo who tries to ask them about why illegal immigrants do what they do.

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